Wheat Sheaf recently wrote about the Dutch Santa Claus tradition, in which Sinterklaas and Zwart Piet go around giving toys to good children, and coal to bad children (and, apparently stuffing REALLY bad children in a sack). He was examining the Dutch attempt to come to terms with multiculturalism and the suitability of a character such as Zwart Piet (potentially colonized servant/slave of white St. Nick) in modern Christmas celebrations.
Well, I don’t have an easy answer for WS, but his post did get me thinking of other Christmas symbols. At work, we’re starting to decorate for the holidays –something to take our minds off the fact it’s getting dark at freakin’ 4pm, as we head into the final month of the year. I overheard a (non-Christian) co-worker reminding the organizer of this initiative that the decorations should be non-denominational – which is only appropriate, in my view.
It got me thinking, though, about what would be acceptable in this context. Obviously, the crèche is out, and probably angels too. But what about Christmas trees? Christians notoriously borrowed a wide variety of fertility and solstice symbols from other traditions as the faith spread throughout Europe back in the day. The tree is a prime example of that – associated with Christmas, but having its roots in pagan beliefs (and I use that in the sense of revering the earth and its inherent power, rather than in any pejorative way), and today the epicentre of the secularized commercial face of Christmas – where all the gifts come to rest. What about lights and candles – also appropriated by the Christian faith to symbolize the star of Bethlehem, or the light of God entering the world in the form of Christ – but originally designed to take peoples’ minds off the fact that it’s getting dark at freakin’ 4pm.
To me, these symbols are completely secularized, and actually can detract from a Christian’s interaction with the spiritual element of the season. However, I know that I am speaking from a position of privilege as a member of the Christian (or nominally Christian, at least . . .) majority. Maybe the fact that they’ve been appropriated by Christianity is enough to make others feel like they’re having the faith pushed on them, and we should be respectful of that. But I do feel like we could all use a little light and green at this time of year, and hope that these symbols can continue to evolve as the culture does, and belong to everyone.